The Simple Explanation of How College Football Rankings Work
College football has always had a difficult relationship with rankings. There are too many teams and not enough games, and teams are so spread out that the people making the rankings can’t even see all of them play. The reality is that there is no way to compile a perfect rankings system and the end result is that a fistful of different ranking systems exist. If used correctly, these ranking systems are a tremendous tool in any bettor’s repertoire.
The Coaches Poll, the AP Poll, the Playoff Committee rankings, various computer-based hierarchies: it can be difficult to keep them all straight in your head. Here’s a handy cheat-sheet of sorts, which sets out the various rankings systems in college football and details their varying levels of importance.
Playoff Committee Rankings
Playoff committee rankings are a list of the top 25 teams, ranked by the committee that selects teams for the College Football Playoff.
It’s best for figuring out which teams have a chance at making the Playoff because it indicates the committee’s preferences, but it’s not particularly good at evaluating the relative strength of teams. A fantastic mid-major who’s pasting everybody will likely be ranked well behind less impressive Power 5 teams.
Notre Dame will likely be overrated, because of the Committee’s responsibility to TV rights holders. Things like conference championships, which ultimately do not affect team performance, are heavily weighted. It’s a human committee, and thus a flawed one, and the explanations the committee puts out to justify its rankings are often comedy gold. This doesn’t mean they’re not important, because this committee has final say in who gets a chance at the national title.
When Do Playoff Committee Rankings Come Out?
Every Tuesday night, starting roughly seven weeks into the season. The final 2017 rankings, which determine the Playoff and New Year’s Six bowls, will come out on December 3rd.
Who Puts Playoff Committee Rankings Together?
The College Football Playoff Committee, made up of athletic directors and university chiefs from across the country, as well as some retired media types and (for a while) Condoleezza Rice.
What Do Playoff Committee Rankings Go Towards?
Who goes to which of the top bowl games, including the Playoffs.
The following holds true of every human poll discussed below: teams that are ranked higher will not necessarily be favored against lower ranked teams when they meet head to head. Bettors should be wary of putting too much credence on human ranking systems when making wagers. Sportsbooks do their own calculations of relative team strength. Often those calculations line-up with the polls—the top-ranked team will generally be a sizable favorite over anyone not in, say, the top-15—but not always. Sportsbooks are less susceptible to things like recency bias and brand-names, and they are more attuned to factors like margin-of-victory and overall efficiency, which are a better gauge of future success than win/loss records.
BCS Rankings: What Are They?
That should say, “What was it?” The BCS is how we used to determine who played in the national championship game. In short, it aggregated the results of the Coaches Poll, the AP Poll (and later the Harris Interactive Poll), and different computer-ranking systems to calculate the top two teams in the nation. It’s gone now, but a lot of people still think of the BCS ranking when they want the actual, official Playoff rankings, which is both understandable (the BCS endured from 1998-2013 and college football isn’t exactly big on change) and a part of why it’s included in the post. Y’all are still googling this stuff.
When Do BCS Rankings Come Out?
They don’t anymore, not since the Playoff was introduced.
Who puts BCS Rankings Together?
They were a composite of human and computer rankings.
What do BCS Rankings Mean?
Nothing because they don’t exist anymore. I cannot stress enough how little existing they do these days.
The AP (Associated Press) Poll
Put together by 65 sportswriters from across the country, the AP (Associated Press) Poll is one of college football’s oldest traditions. Back in the day, the “national champion” was whoever finished the season at the top of the AP Poll. It’s another human poll of the top-25 teams in the nation, but it’s a little bit more palatable than the committee rankings. Really good mid-majors tend to be ranked higher by the AP than the playoff committee, but the rankings still skew towards the Power 5 and particularly the SEC.
The preseason edition of the AP Poll is often the subject of much debate, which is its purpose.
When do AP Polls Come Out?
Every Sunday during college football season, usually around noon ET.
Who Puts AP Polls Together?
A group of AP-affiliated sportswriters from across the country.
What Do AP Polls Mean?
Who the AP think the best teams in the country are. The poll has no effect on who plays who in the postseason.
What Is the Coaches Poll
What do sportswriters know, anyway? Coaches are at the coalface of college football; surely their opinion is better informed than anybody else’s. That’s the thinking, anyway, behind the Amway Coaches Poll, which polls 62 FBS head coaches to produce a(nother) top-25. It’s usually quite similar to the AP Poll and was, once upon a time, part of the BCS rankings. The old crystal football that used to be the national championship trophy was named “The Coaches Trophy,” interestingly, and apparently, they still give you one when you win.
The Coaches Poll is, if anything, a little kinder to mid-majors and a little slower to get caught up in the hype than the AP Poll. The preseason Coaches Poll comes out a little earlier than the AP Poll, and typically before the string of suspensions and injury announcements that make mid-August interesting.
When Does the Coaches Poll Come Out?
Every Sunday during college football season, generally slightly before the AP poll.
Who puts the Coaches Poll Together?
Amway/USA Today polls 62 FBS coaches, including some of the most prominent in the country. Nick Saban is a voter!
What Does the Coaches Poll Mean?
Who those 65 coaches think the best teams in the country are. Like the AP Poll, it has no effect on who plays who in the postseason.
The one thing human polls are bad at doing is predicting future performance. If Alabama is ranked #1 this week, what does that mean for their chances against #2 Ohio State? Can they cover a seven-point spread on the road? Is the difference between #1 and #2 bigger than the difference between #2 and #3?
Computer rankings are systems built to analyze games and come up with a more accurate understanding of relative team quality. They’re blind to things like brand name and hype. For the most part, they just analyze the plays of every football game to produce an understanding of relative team quality. They prioritize things like offensive and defensive efficiency and success rate over the (somewhat trite) narrative arcs that sports media (and the rankings produced by sports media sites) seem to favor. They’re also blissfully disabused of concepts of respect or fairness, such that a team can beat its rival fair and square and find itself ranked behind that same opponent anyway. For this reason, they tend to annoy die-hard fans and find favor with bettors.
A website called Football Outsiders (the people that make DVOA for NFL teams) puts together a rating system called “S&P+,” which uses play-by-play analysis to measure performance and rank teams based on their efficiency, explosiveness, field position, ability to finish drives, and turnover margin. It also produced the Fremeau Efficiency Index (or FEI) which calculates the number of points scored over the expected number of points based on starting field position, and “F/+,” which is a combination of the FEI and S&P+. Both are good at creating win expectancy percentages, which you can use for moneyline betting, and projected scores, which are great for betting against the spread. It isn’t perfect, no system is, but it performs pretty well against the spread, particularly in the first few weeks of the season.
ESPN’s Football Power Index aims to do something fairly similar to FEI, in that it calculates the number of expected points for a given down, distance, and field position, but instead of doing it per possession does the same calculation for every individual play.
Massey-Peabody is a little opaque, but from what we know, they use an improved metric for yards per play rushing and passing, plus efficiency numbers for scoring and play success.
When Do Computer Rankings Come Out?
New computer rankings come out at various times during the week, although they are usually a little slower than, say, the easier-to-compile Coaches Poll.
Who puts Computer Rankings Together?
Whoever has the time. If you’ve got a head for numbers, you could compile your own!
What Do Computer Rankings Mean?
They’re only as important as you make them. They don’t affect any postseason scheduling, but if there’s one you think accurately assesses team quality, go ahead and trust it in your betting endeavors. Unlike the human polls, which put a massive premium on simply winning games, computer models tend to value factors like margin-of-victory, which are generally accepted to be better indicators of future performance.
Looking to Learn More About College Football?
Ranking systems are useful, but they don’t paint the whole picture when it comes to college football betting. Check out our how-to section for more information on what you need to know when it comes to betting on NCAAF action!